Royal Opera House Re-opens
November 2000 - Ritz Magazine
I made my first trip backstage at the Royal Opera House at the age of 13, when I was cast as a rat in The Royal Ballet's annual production of The Nutcracker. It should have been glorious, but my abiding memory is of the dungeon-like dressing room alongside the basement canteen, where I lay feeling horribly sick while my classmates rehearsed alongside Lynn Seymour and Rudolf Nureyev on the stage overhead. That was over twenty-five years ago. On a good day, I might just still be recognisable as the teenage girl with all her dreams to live for. The Royal Opera House, on the other hand, has changed beyond all recognition.
There's been a theatre on the corner of Bow Street and Floral Street since 1732. The house we know was built by Edward Barry in 1858. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, it was privately owned and presented short seasons of opera and ballet by visiting impresarios, including Diaghilev's sensational Ballet Russes. During the war, the House was leased to the entertainment giant Mecca, who boarded over the stage and the auditorium to create a dance hall where servicemen could boogie away their leave. It reopened as a theatre in 1949 with an historic performance of The Sleeping Beauty, led by Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes and watched by the Royal Family, the Prime Minister and assorted dignitaries of society and the arts. Rationing was still in force, so clothing coupons were begged, stolen and borrowed to enable the costume department to carry out Oliver Messel's elaborate designs. They were working to a tight deadline: Beryl Grey, cast as the Lilac Fairy, remembers trimmings being added to her tutu as the evening went on. Despite all the hardships, the performance was a triumph. Dame Ninette de Valois' fledgling national ballet company had found itself a wonderful new home.
By the 1970s, the theatre's Victorian idiosyncrasies were beginning to lose their charm. The stage's outdated mechanisms were proving dangerous and the plumbing was a health hazard. The Royal Ballet was beginning to tire of the endless to-ing and fro-ing along the Picadilly Line, between its West London rehearsal facilities and the Covent Garden stage. Refurbishment was long overdue. Fortuitously, the land alongside the theatre was available. The cash, however, was not. Piecemeal improvements took place in the early 80's, but it was only with the advent of the National Lottery, in the 1990's, that the full-scale redevelopment of the Royal Opera House could begin.
We moved out on July 14th, 1997, after a grand farewell gala featuring both opera and ballet. The bulldozers had already begun their work, and over 160 artists were huddled together in the few dressing rooms that were left. Between acts, we wandered around saying our good-byes to a building that had, over the years, played host to every famous dancer and singer who has ever lived. Tiny mementos of the theatre mysteriously found their way into handbags and coat pockets - a sign pointing to the old ballet dressing rooms now adorns my bedroom wall. We partied into the night and then reluctantly handed the builders the keys. It had to happen, but it still felt as if years of history were about to be consigned to rubble.
After two years of exile, the Royal Opera House's two performing companies, The Royal Opera and The Royal Ballet, moved back in November 1999. Nostalgia was the last thing on our minds as we surveyed the wonders of our new home. In 1981, when I joined The Royal Ballet, there had been one small basement studio, where the stars warmed up before stage rehearsals. The rest of us attempted class on the carpet of the Crush Bar. It was hardly the best preparation, but in an old Victorian theatre, it was the best space we could find. The 1982 extension brought two large studios: an improvement, but one short of the three we needed to move in permanently. Now, though, we have six: olympic-sized spaces with pale grey floors and white washed walls. It took a while to adjust to the monochrome environment; for the first few weeks I felt as if I was rehearsing in a snow shaker. Vast skylights overhead flood the rooms with natural light and offer a tantalising peek of Barry's embellishments atop the original roof. One floor down, a physiotherapy suite allows injured dancers to be treated on site and immediately, perhaps the most crucial element in a speedy recovery. At stage level, the dressing rooms are reminiscent of a four star hotel, the en suite bathrooms erasing all memories of the (un)sanitary facilities we used to endure. Well, almost.
The improvements continue out front. The architects, Dixon Jones and BDP have retained the building's charm whilst doing away with its archaic irritations. In a nod to history, the original Covent Garden flower market, the Floral Hall, has been restored and transformed into a magnificent glass foyer. The old Crush Bar where we used to take class – named originally for the 'orange crush' it served, not the uncomfortable physical sensation it produced – is no longer such a squeeze. And with 86 available, queuing for the ladies' loos is a thing of the past.
At the heart of it all, though, is performance. The Opera House stands on two and a half acres of Covent Garden, and an acre and a half of that is given over to the stage. The original stage has spread like molten lava, engulfing the old dressing rooms and a tiny cobbled street to provide enormous storage areas to the side and to the rear. The floor is an ingenious patch work of moveable 'wagons' which allow fully constructed sets to be propelled forwards, backwards or sideways at the touch of a button. From overlooking viewing windows we can watch rooms, houses, even entire villages moving around with an eerie unreality, like trees in a landslide. The beauty of this system is that heavy stage sets need no longer be taken apart and rebuilt between performances, saving crucial man-hours and increasing rehearsal time. The stage expands upwards, too, cutting a void through floors one to three. Most of the departments which make up the Royal Opera House – dancers, singers, administration, wardrobe, scene painting, wigs – are housed in offices and workshops above and around this void, like a series of hilltop villages. Our long awaited ballet studios sit above it all, hovering on the fifth floor with an unparalleled view across Covent Garden's rooftops to the London Eye and beyond.
There were those who said that when the theatre lost its ghosts – its antiquated machinery and its peeling paint - the magic would go, too. In fact, the opposite should prove to be true. Theatrical magic doesn't live in backstage memories. It's created afresh, every time the curtain goes up, and it's based on long hours and hard work. These days, with a permanent home in the theatre where we perform, The Royal Ballet and The Royal Opera are better placed to create magic than ever before.